Manifestos for the Female Gaze: Portraiture in Lesbian Films

Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Marianne, wearing a dull red dress, stands in a softly lit room of an old stately home, in front of a wooden easel. There is a rag in her hand and a palette of paint and brushes sitting on a box beside her. She looks down at the canvas, but we cannot see what she is painting.
Lilies Films

In an interview published in JumpCut in 1981, lesbian documentary filmmaker Barbara Hammer was asked to reflect on how her films have been described as depicting a utopian image of lesbian life. She said: 

“My films are often called visionary, but I am not a visionary. I am living my lesbian life. I’m not waiting. My life today is my vision. By documenting what others would call visionary, what I would call ‘actionary,’ I hope to spark the imagination of the audience. It is a way of keeping us alive and giving us strength to see what is possible. To live a lesbian life, to make it real, to validate it in film, is a revolutionary act.”

This revolutionary act, documenting a lesbian life in art, is a reoccuring theme in lesbian films over the past 20 years. Specifically, portraiture has been present in the plots of lesbian films. The most obvious instance of portraiture in a queer film is the 2019 French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma. The film’s events transpire after Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) at her home on a remote island in Brittany. Before Marianne’s arrival, Héloïse refused to sit for a different painter because she is reluctant to get married. The plan is for the portrait of Héloïse to be mailed to her betrothed in Italy ahead of her arrival and their introduction. Since Héloïse refuses to sit for a portrait Marianne is tasked to paint her in secret. She is instructed to accompany Héloïse on daily walks, and during these walks observe her face and hands, so that at night she can paint them.

Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Marianne, dressed in an elegant blue dress with a cropped cloak over her shoulders, stands in front of an art gallery wall. There are several gold-framed paintings behind her, the largest depicting the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Lilies Films

In Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger writes, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” In these early moments of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, Marianne is viewing Héloïse as a sight, an object to be captured and reproduced on a canvas for a male suitor. The first formal portrait is not and not intended to be an exact depiction of Héloïse. When discussing the first portrait with Héloïse, Marianne explains that in painting “there are rules, conventions, ideas.” These conventions include techniques like spacing and shading, but also include beliefs like the ideal spectator of a painting is always male. Héloïse is disappointed by Marianne’s inability or unwillingness to capture her and by extension see her as more than an object, for the male gaze, with “no life, no presence.” 

The second portrait Marianne paints of Héloïse, she agrees to sit for. While she is posing there is a moment when Héloïse reminds Marianne that she, too, is a sight. Héloïse says: “When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?” In this moment the imbalanced power dynamic recedes. There is no longer an observer and an object of those observations instead there are two women capturing a moment; one on canvas and one in the mind’s eye.

Céline Sciamma, the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire claims that the film is a “manifesto about the female gaze.”  The male gaze is an academic theory closely related to what Berger above is describing, but instead of in life and in art it is a theory unique to the moving image. The basic premise is that traditionally films are shot for a heterosexual male audience; therefore the women on screen are there to be looked at by the men watching. In the film, the creation of the portraits brings to light the insidiousness of the male gaze and when Héloïse reminds Marianne, and the audience that she too is watching her we are reminded that women, and in this instance queer women have agency over the ways they are represented, that they are not just a sight, and that the male gaze is not the only way a film needs to be shot.

Still from Carol (2015). Therese stands beside Carol's car, wrapped in a thick coat and tartan scarf due to the light snowfall. She is holding a film camera, which she looks down at as she fiddles with the settings.

In Carol, the 2015 film directed by Todd Haynes, Therese (Rooney Mara) is a photographer who prior to meeting Carol (Cate Blanchett) had no interest in photographing people. A romance forms between the two women  after they serendipitously meet in a department store during christmas time. They embark on a road trip west leaving from New Jersey and heading towards Chicago.

Throughout the film Carol, a suburban housewife, is going through a heated divorce and custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Harge is already suspicious that Carol is queer because of her relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) and has used this fact against her in court in an attempt to gain sole custody of their daughter Rindy. To further his agenda, Harge hires a private investigator to follow Carol and Therese on their trip. He photographs and records them in intimate moments and sends the tapes back to New York. Like the painting intended for Héloïse’s betrothed, the photos and recordings taken by the PI are intended to uphold the patriarchal and homophobic norms of Carol’s world. They are not intended to capture Carol, they are intended only to document her actions and to inflict damage on her life. During the same time the private investigator is following them Therese is taking her own photos of Carol. Therese’s photos are of Carol shopping for a christmas tree, eating at a restaurant, and sleeping in bed. These photos show Carol happy, they capture moments of her feeling safe and carefree, living a rather mundane lesbian life she is forced to hide due to Harge and the expectations of the 1950s.  

The juxtaposition between the invasion of privacy from the PI and the loving photographs Therese captures represents the ways in which queer films have been exploitative in the past. In other words, Haynes, with Carol, is creating a film, that like Thereses’ photos is initimate and loving, but not at all sensationalised or sexualised.  In The New Yorker review of Carol, Richard Brody points out that “Carol features very little skin; its sensuality is textural and architectural, in clothing and fabric, in the squeezed hand on a clothed shoulder, in ardent gazes, furtive glances, and the shape of space that those looks fill with desire.” The same can be said about Therese’s photographs, which she took for herself without the intention of publishing or sharing them. Towards the end of the film, Danny (John Magaro), Therese’s friend at The Times sees and compliments a few of the photos and she quickly puts them away further showing that she does not intend to use them for professional gain. 

Still from High Art (1998). Syd and Lucy are sat side by side in a car. Syd looks away from Lucy and gazes down, as Lucy aims her camera at Syd's face in close-up.
October Films

A third film, High Art, older than Carol and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was released in 1998. High Art takes place in New York City in the 1990s. In the film, Syd (Radha Mitchell), an assistant film editor at a high art photography magazine called Frame, meets her upstairs neighbour Lucy (Ally Sheedy), an accomplished and retired portrait photographer, after a leak appears in her ceiling. Syd convinces Lucy to begin working professionally again and helps her land the cover of Frame. Much of the film takes place in Lucy’s apartment, where the walls are adorned with the portraits, some candid, some slightly staged, that she has taken of her friends and partner. These are the same portraits that are in her professional book and the ones that the editors at Frame fancy. 

At one point in the film, Syd asks Lucy why she left the art world. Lucy responds that it was a “mental health decision.” It was not that Lucy did not like the art she was making (she hung it all over her apartment) or that she didn’t want to make new pieces (she’s continued to work just not exhibit or publish the photos), it is that she did not want to be part of the art industry. When Lucy meets with the editors they ask her to “examine her life and friends,” to “go back to the place where you left off,” Lucy reluctantly agrees to do the cover as long as Syd is her editor. The magazine pushing Lucy to regress back into her previous work and exploit her life for their profit is illustrative of the ways lesbian lives are often exploited for the entertainment of others. The exact thing Haynes pushes back against in Carol by not sensationalizing the relationship between the two of them. 

Like the magazine pushing Lucy into regressing back to her previous self exploitative themes, Lucy’s death (in the last four minutes of the film) can be read as a last minute addition to appease the cinematic powers that be. Lucy’s death seems to fit into the bury your gays trope. The convention that queer women should die, or at a minimum be given an unhappy ending of their stories can be traced back to lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Barabara Hammer’s remarks from 1981 still ring true today. While there are many more representations of lesbian lives in the media, filmmakers still butt up against the norms and conventions of the film industry. Portraiture plays an important role in exposing the hurdles that must be surmounted when attempting to authentically represent lesbianism. Lesbian films have come along way since High Art’s release in 1998, but to validate a lesbian life on film remains a revolutionary act.

by Meredith Salisbury

Meredith Salisbury is a freelance writer and indie bookseller based right outside of Philadelphia. They write about pop culture, music, and social media. Previously they were a social media researcher and the music director of WMUH. You can find them online @meresalisbury.

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